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London Film Festival 2018: Widows, Namibia Today, Optimism

Michelle Rodriguez, Viola Davis and Elizabeth Debicki in Widows

What a woman must do just to survive. Lynda LaPlante knew is 35 years ago; Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn know it now too. McQueen goes pulpy with Widows, an ideal commercial vehicle for his artistic impulses as much as it is an attractively high-brow forum for the former visual artist to unleash the full force of his populist faculties. This is an intricate, multi-stranded thriller with a vibrant stream of direct, uncompromising social justice throbbing violently through its core. It's vengeful yet liberal, violent yet compassionate, brutish yet intelligent, both entertaining and intellectually fulfilling.

I'm consistently overwhelmed at Steve McQueen's ability to give cinematic shape to emotional states, across all four of his features to date. The clue is in the title - Widows is a story of grief, whether it masquerades as anger, frustration, defiance, or nothing at all beyond the crushing emptiness of loss. Viola Davis is a perfect conduit for McQueen and Flynn's knotty exploration of the tightest emotional knot of all, which reveals its horrible complexity in a mosaical structure that flits from one protagonist to the next, from past to present, with every individual thread fully-realized. With so much going on, there's no time to waste, no space for subtlety. Widows is confrontational in its brutality, even comedically so, and its economy of storytelling is quite magnificent, not least in the panache with which McQueen achieves this. "Just get it done," declares Davis in her pithiest command, and the film responds in form. It's what a woman must do.

What a woman has done is helm a short film, Namibia Today by Laura Morelli, a reminiscence on the part played in the Namibian liberation movement by the titular journal in the early 1980s. Participants recount their respective roles in that movement and their memories of the paper; Morelli's camera lingers long on billboards in the U-Bahn station of Schillingstrasse, located in former East Berlin - the images are of the paper's front pages blown up large. Morelli observes and contemplates, permitting the contemplations of others to ring forth. Yet the short is mostly of informative purpose, and appears as its own entity to be mainly just the opportunistic capturing and collation of existing content. As a historical document, it's too nebulous to have much impact, and as a work of art, it's too lacking in actual artistry.

Another woman makes another short film in Deborah Stratman's Optimism, a deceptively abstract piece on Dawson City, Yukon: its history as a gold mining town and its status as a place so inaccessible that even the sun struggles to show up. Stratman skips between shots and perspectives, never signalling any indication of where her film will stray to next, composing a collage less of the city itself than of her interests in it. It's entirely the sort of thing that could bore and befuddle the casual viewer, yet reveal obscure little rewards for those paying close enough attention. There's gold in this here film!

Widows, Namibia Today and Optimism are all showing at the 2018 BFI London Film Festival, currently ongoing in the British capital and due to finish on the 21st of October; Widows was the opening night gala.

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